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The Derelict/Pyramid/Silo

“In a dark lower chamber of the breeding temple a large number of eggs lie dormant, waiting to sense something warm …”
~ Ron Cobb, Alien portfolio.

In Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay the alien planet was dotted with two objects of note: the SOS-emitting derelict vessel, and an alien pyramid. Inside the derelict the exploring crewmen find the ossified remains of the Space Jockey, and in the pyramid they stumble upon the Alien spore. “The pyramid and derelict -two different elements- were still the subject of a see-saw debate when I came on the project,” Ridley Scott is quoted as saying in The Book of Alien. “I would love to have shot [the pyramid], but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would have been wonderful in a three-hour version. What finally cracked it was the budget. We just had to get rid of it.” In the film, these two different structures are merged into one, becoming a “surrealist mystery”, in the words of O’Bannon.

In the original script the Jockey was merely a planetary explorer, and his ship a research vessel of sorts, and not a carrier of biological warfare as suggested in the movie. The Jockey and the Alien were two completely unrelated alien species, with the former simply serving to forewarn the audience, and the Snark crewmen, that something deadly was lying in wait—a warning that the human explorers ignore to their peril. O’Bannon’s original conception of the Alien race was not that of a deadly bioweapon. Instead they were an ancient, cultured, yet annihilated race. “The planetoid was now dead,” O’Bannon explained, “and this civilisation had been gone for millions of years.” This “unique race” sported a strange, apparently religion-based reproductive system that necessitated three sexual partners—two consensual, one sacrificial. The reproductive process was undertaken within pyramid structures.

The first hint of the pyramid in O’Bannon’s screenplay comes from within the derelict craft. “In the movie,” O’Bannon explained to Fantastic Films in 1979, “the men discover a wrecked construction of non-human manufacture and inside of it they find eggs of the monster.” He then detailed the scenario in the original script: “The men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew [the Space Jockeys] are all dead. They return to their own ship to contemplate what may have killed the alien crew and then they discover a pyramid on the planet which appears to be indigenous and primitive. They enter the pyramid and there they find the eggs.”

Kane explores the innards of the pyramid. Light beams down from an oculus. His torchlight finds a hieroglyphic explaining the Alien life-cycle.

“In Dan’s original conception the Alien race had three entirely different stages of its life-cycle,” Ron Cobb explained when talking of the purpose of the pyramid. The Alien eggs are tended to “by the third stage adults and housed in a lower chamber of the breeding temple. When ready to hatch, the egg is placed in the middle of a sacrificial stone and a lower animal, the equivalent of an alien cow, is then led on to the stone. Sensing the warmth, the facehugger springs out, attaches itself to the animal and deposits a foetus into the stomach.” At some point in the planetoid’s history, a “cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults … leaving no one to tend and nurture the young. But in a dark lower chamber of the breeding temple a large number of eggs lie dormant, waiting to sense something warm …”

During the pre-production phase, Ridley and the crew considered swapping the conical pyramid for a biomechanic, honeycombed egg silo. This was because, according to Giger, a pyramid structure was too familiar a shape for an alien world. “In the original story the eggs were in a pyramid silo,” said Giger, “like an Egyptian one, with hieroglyphics on the walls. I worked up the hieroglyphics which tell the story of the Alien. But it was too close, we found, to our own Egyptian culture and we thought it should be almost completely unearthly, so we designed another silo.”

Ultimately, the silo was also axed due to time and budget constraints, and the egg chamber was finally merged with the derelict craft. “The budget wasn’t big enough to include this [silo] structure,” Giger continues, “so we decided it would be a good idea to have these eggs inside the derelict, like termites inside the walls of a house.”

"In order to get into the pyramid," Scott told Fantastic Films, "they have to climb a staircase. Now, I got that right out of Giger's book. I didn't intend it to be exactly what we'd end up with. I threw it in really as a suggestion of what it may be like..."

“In order to get into the pyramid,” Scott told Fantastic Films, “they have to climb a staircase. Now, I got that right out of Giger’s book. I didn’t intend it to be exactly what we’d end up with. I threw it in really as a suggestion of what it may be like…”

He continues: "They climb the stairs and arrive at the entrance. The idea of a face for the doorway in the storyboard is dead wrong, because it's too normal... "

He continues: “They climb the stairs and arrive at the entrance. The idea of a face for the doorway in the storyboard is dead wrong, because it’s too normal… “

"Kane goes inside and finds a small housing and then goes down through a hole in the floor. I was doing this whole bloody thing as vagina, going right through. It's like the pyramid is a virgin."

“Kane goes inside and finds a small housing and then goes down through a hole in the floor. I was doing this whole bloody thing as vagina, going right through. It’s like the pyramid is a virgin…”

"I was going to have him slit the membrane and then gas or air or whatever would come wafting out. And he's got to go through this spooky thing of going through this slit..."

“I was going to have him slit the membrane and then gas or air or whatever would come wafting out. And he’s got to go through this spooky thing of going through this slit…”

Most of these ideas “went, by the way, when the pyramid and derelict sequences were combined,” according to Scott, (though the general idea of descending into an egg-filled hold remained.) “We were looking at a $12 or $13 million film,” Scott explained further, “[and] we just had to pare it down to $8 million.” He also added that he “would rather have spent the extra money and made the film for a two and a half hour release, not the the present hour-57 minutes,” (in a later interview, Scott seemed to have made peace with the change: “I’m glad we simplified it,” he said.)

O’Bannon was not entirely pleased with the merger of the pyramid and silo. “They squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity,” he told Fantastic Films. “In my script, [the Space Jockeys were] a space-going race that landed on the planet and had been wiped out by whatever was there, and now the Earth-men come and they endanger themselves in the same way. In the new version it’s just sort of a surrealist mystery.”

Though O’Bannon’s idea of a bygone, ancient Alien race was nixed by this merger, it did lend the Space Jockey a more sinister undertone. No longer an innocent victim of its own curiosity, the Jockey was depicted as a creature that had seemingly fallen foul of its own dangerous cargo. The Jockeys would no longer be merely a “space-going race,” but were hinted to be interstellar warmongers, with the Alien their apparent weapon of choice.

At one point in the film’s development, just prior to Ridley Scott’s recruitment as director, producers Walter Hill and David Giler presented a version of Alien without the pyramid or the alien derelict. “We believed,” Hill told Film International in 2004, “that if you got rid of a lot of the junk -they had pyramids and hieroglyphics in the planetoid, a lot of von Däniken crap- that what you would have left would be a very good, very primal space story.”

However, Hill and Giler did not merely remove the pyramids and hieroglyphics, but they replaced them as well. For this brief iteration of the script, the Alien spore was housed in a man-made construct known only as the ‘Cylinder’, and the derelict craft was a downed human ship, a “warmed over L-52,” according to Dallas. Inside the ship lies its human pilot, referred to by Dallas as “one dead space jockey,” (a slang term which stuck around to be bestowed upon the mysterious creature.)

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Kane, Dallas and Lambert discover the derelict, which in this version of the script is a craft of human origin. “No signs of life,” continues Dallas, “no lights… no movement… “
A hatchway on the ship is open, and the trio venture inside…

Inside they find signs of a gunfight, an 'urn', and then the derelict ship's dead pilot...

Inside they find signs of a gunfight, and later, within the cockpit, they find an ‘urn’, along with the derelict ship’s dead pilot. Dallas spots the SOS beacon and turns it off. “One dead space jockey,” he concludes, “no sign of the other crew members; the old L-52’s generally went up with a compliment of seven…”
“They’re probably scattered out on this plain,” Lambert interjects.
Dallas can only offer a thoughtful “Maybe.”

Ash cuts in on the conversation, and tells them via radio that he can see something of an “irregular shape”. The three leave the derelict and venture out again into the storm, eventually stumbling across the mysterious object: a “red cylinder on the horizon. One hundred meters high.”

The Nostromo crew find the 'Cylinder', a man-made construct that houses the alien spore. As it turns out, the spore is in fact not alien, but a biological weapon created by the Company. The crew have stumbled on a research facility, and are now new test subjects, all to be observed by Ash.

The Nostromo crew find the ‘Cylinder’, a man-made construct that houses the alien spore. As it turns out, the spore is in fact not alien, but instead is a biological weapon created by the Company. The crew have stumbled on a research facility, and are now its new test subjects, with all the slaughter to be observed and reported by Ash.

The Cylinder survives only in one piece of Ron Cobb’s conceptual art, which shows the short-lived construct looming behind the derelict “L-52”. In this version of the story, the Alien is a bioweapon engineered by the malevolent Company. The Nostromo crew are re-routed to be used as specimens to test the creature’s lethality. When Ron Shusett presented his and O’Bannon’s original script to the newly recruited Ridley Scott, Scott decided that they should go back to the original plan. Though the alien elements would go on to persist all the way to the final movie, the separate pyramid/silo, ultimately, would not.

After the script had been (pretty much) locked down and the concepts agreed upon, and with the egg silo finally merged with the alien ship, it was time to settle on a design for the vessel. For this task, Alien conceptual artists Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud initially took turns at the design.

“The only problem [with Cobb’s concepts] was that he was a rationalist … I decided to have him take a crack at the derelict spaceship, but when I asked him to come up with an irrational shape he got very disturbed. He couldn’t handle that. He kept coming up with convincing technology for a flying saucer or some other kind of UFO.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Cinefex, 1979.

“I conceptualised the derelict as a gnome’s castle – colourful and interesting and bizarre as hell, but not morbid. Chris Foss did a wonderful painting of the ship which is still my favourite. It was a beautiful, bronzed lobster-like thing sitting on the sand – very technological, very odd-looking, very difficult to figure out quite how it would fly.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Cinefex, 1979.

“This was a Moebius’ idea of the derelict. It’s actually rather nice and slightly archaic and faintly Victorian for some reason or other. I quite liked it but we finally decided it simply wasn’t strange enough – not unearthly enough. It was too normal, so therefore Giger came up at a much later stage and did another one.”
~ Ridley Scott, Fantastic Films, 1979.

Foss and Moebius’ derelict designs were considered seriously enough by Scott to make appearances in several pre-production storyboards and ‘Ridleygrams’, but the director felt unsatisfied with how the designs were fitting in with the “hard-nosed” vision he had for the film. “They were wrong, somehow,” he said of the other derelict designs, “too fantastic. And because Alien was quickly becoming more and more real rather than fantastic I figured finally that we were going to have enough extraordinary things in it [already], so it was better finally not to make the airship or the Earth people too extraordinary.”

Moebius' derelict design appeared in one set of Ridleygrams.

Moebius’ steampunk conch design appeared in one set of Ridleygrams.

Scott eventually turned to Giger, fresh from designing the Alien, for other interpretations of the Jockey ship.

“What we were looking for here was a totally alien-looking spacecraft,” Scott told Cinefex in 1979. “I didn’t think it would something with a lot of lights on it and stuff like that. I figured it would be like nothing anyone ever imagines; either that, or extraordinarily familiar and slightly archaic looking.”

“Once the Alien was under control,” said Giger, “Ridley asked me if I could design a spaceship not made by human beings. Well how do you do that? I thought maybe it might look organic -something that could grow even, like a plant- but I didn’t know exactly what it should look like. Then early one morning I couldn’t sleep, I got up and started painting and the derelict ship was born in a few hours. It ended up like an aerodynamic bone with little technical stuff all over it, but it wasn’t anything I had planned – it just sort of ran out of my mind and my airbrush.”

Like the other artists, Giger brought his own style to the concepts, and his proved to be the most provocative. His Jockey ship rests atop a landscape of twisted metal and bone“I wanted it to look planted,” Giger told Famous Monsters, “perhaps in the process of maturing, a mixture of organic and mechanical stuff.”

“Giger’s first drawing was just a knockout,” said Scott. “I took one look at it and said, ‘That’s it.’ Other people couldn’t quite see it though, so I had to keep digging my heels and saying, ‘You wont get a better derelict – don’t screw about with it.’ You know, Giger is a special case, and when something’s that good, you have to recognise it and leave it alone.’

The grounded derelict. Image copyright HR Giger.

The grounded derelict. Image copyright HR Giger.

However, despite Ridley loving the design, some members of the production crew took issue with the derelict’s odd shape. First to object was the film’s writer. “O’Bannon,” Giger wrote in his diary, “who has just flown in from the USA, doesn’t think it’s technical enough. A battle of pros and cons begins. I keep my silence; I know that Scott will win the argument.” Of course, as it turns out, he did.

Another dissenting voice was Brian Johnson, who was tasked to build the thing. “It’s a wonderful design,” Johnson said, “but as it turned out, we couldn’t build it. It was like an Escher optical illusion. As a two-dimensional painting it look very logical, but there was no actual way you could build it in three dimensions … We took Giger’s sketch and sculpted a small replica without any detail, just the basic shape, for a test. It’s a common problem. A director will come to you with a drawing: ‘Hey I’ve got this great sketch!’ But it’s a two-dimensional drawing, and when you put it into three dimensions it never looks the same.”

These logistical problems seemed quite severe, and Giger was called into a meeting. He noted in his diary: “They ask me to the office, where [Ridley] Scott, [Michael] Seymour [the production designer] and [Gordon] Carroll are waiting for me. Carroll says I will design another derelict … As it is now, it is too reminiscent of a bone and might make people think it was an organic part of the landscape. There will also be technical difficulties in building it. I am astounded to hear this from Carroll, of all people, who had been enthusiastic about my derelict when he first saw it … I try to convince Carroll that the dimensions and the aerodynamic shape are enough in themselves to distinguish the derelict from the landscape, and moreover the technical details ought not to be too obvious in case they spoil the biomechanical character of a space-ship built by non-humans. I simply can’t see how I can improve on it; I regard it as one of my best pictures.”

“Carroll proves unyielding,” he continues,  “and finally practically orders me to conjure up something else out of the ground. They seem to think I can just shake good ideas out of my sleeve – the bitter fate of a creative artist. Scott keeps quiet during the discussion, and in silent opposition demonstrates a quite ordinary, banal crashed aircraft, its tail fins pointing skyward. I understand and, promising to try something different, go back to my work. This is an occasion when time will work for me.”

Giger’s saviour in this instance was sculptor Peter Voysey, who was able to translate his biomechanic fantasy into reality. Of Voysey, Giger was grateful enough to tell Cinefantastique: “I’d say he was the best of all the model makers on the film.”

Voysey took Giger’s surreal biomechanic fantasy…

…and made it a surreal biomechanic reality.

“Time was very short,” Giger said of the creation process, “too short to make everything good. Peter Voysey built the derelict and we worked very closely together. He was one who could understand my visual language. I am happy with the derelict … it was filmed very dark. It’s more imposing to backlight the object, it seems more sinister.”

Unfortunately, as Brian Johnson explains, “[Voysey’s] no longer with us. He stepped off a curb in France and got hit by a car, he looked the wrong way. The car was coming from the other way.” Johnson, like Giger praised Voysey’s skills: “He was an absolutely fantastic sculptor.”

Giger's concept for the derelict's interior corridors.

Giger’s concept for the derelict’s interior corridors. The design is akin to a long, wormy sternum threading its way through the ship.

The ship's 'ribcaged' interior. The walls glisten and drip like the innards of a great carcass.

The ship’s ‘ribcaged’ interior set. The walls glisten and drip like the innards of a great carcass.

As already established, to be more economic (in terms of time and money) the egg silo was merged with the derelict. Literally. The Jockey pilot room set was redressed and was shot as the egg chamber. For the hold, O’Bannon raised an objection. “[O’Bannon] once said,” Giger explained, “that the hatchery could not contain more than six eggs. And I had to convince him that a hatchery with six eggs was preposterous.” Over-ruled, the production built literally hundreds of hollow eggs for the silo set. Kane’s venture into the silo would be shot in September 1978, and the close-ups of the egg and the erupting facehugger were shot later, at Bray studios, along with the shots of the Nostromo.

“This would be argued as the hold of the ship,” Ridley says of the chamber on Alien‘s 1999 DVD commentary. “I managed to get the use of a laser beam, which I could spread in a thin blue sheet …  I always thought of the laser beam as the placenta wall for the eggs.”

Ridley explains further in the 2003 commentary track that, “The man running the laser beams in this particular moment was Anton Furst, who later became an art director and actually did films such as Batman. Anton was great to work with, with his very small team, and I was absolutely, literally blown away by the effect of these beams, ‘cause we hadn’t seen it before, really. I thought this would be very useful to me to create this ‘skin’, like a protection [over the eggs]. As John [Hurt] says, ‘a layer of mist.’ And then he slips, goes through, unharmed. But maybe [the laser] is like the membrane protecting the eggs, so let’s say he’s broken the membrane. Maybe he’s triggered something, maybe he hasn’t – but if they’re [the eggs] now sitting there, pre-warned and programmed, like organisms, to react if touched … And of course, he will touch it.”

“I had a company called Holoco,” Furst explained in 1989, “and we did a holography show at the Royal Academy [in London] called Light Fantastic, which was a success that none of us expected. As a result of which, The Who, who backed the show, bought a quarter of Shepperton Studios and set up a company with the money. Just at that time, there was this plethora of FX films, and we had all this laser equipment, so we were doing laser effects, and we then brought in model units, and we worked for four years. At one point, we were working on Outland, Flash Gordon, Alien and Moonraker all at the same time. We had crews all over. I was running a whole operation. I wasn’t near a drawing board; I was just trying to keep the crews working.” Furst, tragically, took his own life in 1991.

The purpose of the derelict craft is left a mystery in the film. “I was amazed that no one asked me about this mysterious element of the film,” Scott said to French magazine L’Ecran Fantastique in 2012, “but if you would have asked me in 1978, I would have gladly explained that, in my mind, all this alien ship could be was a battleship.” Aliens writer/director James Cameron explained that the derelict’s purpose and story was something best left to the original director.

“Presumably,” Cameron wrote in Starlog magazine, “the derelict pilot (space jockey, big dental patient, etc.) became infected en route to somewhere and set down on the barren planetoid to isolate the dangerous creatures, setting up the warning beacon as his last act … Perhaps he was a volunteer or a draftee on the hazardous mission of bio-isolating these organisms. Perhaps he was a military pilot, delivering the alien eggs as a bio-weapon in some ancient interstellar war humans know nothing of, and got infected inadvertently.”

Cameron's sketch of one of the derelict's prongs.

Cameron’s sketch of one of the derelict’s prongs. We can see some resemblance to a heart.

“I always wondered when they did [Alien] 2, 3 and 4 why they hadn’t touched upon that [derelict],” Scott mused with Empire magazine. “One [sequel] was set on a prison, wasn’t it? Jim’s was more military, going back to what happened to the people, whatever happened to the space station and the pioneers that were all on it. That was all logical at the time, and yet they missed one of the biggest questions of all, which is: who’s the big guy? Who’s flying the ship, basically? And where are they going? And with what? Why that cargo?”

Though we never saw its interior, the original derelict made one last appearance in the series in the Special Edition of Aliens, where the Jorden family find the ship; torn from its perch by seismic activity and cleaved in two. For its scenes here, plates of the original ship were filmed in the US. The actual model had fallen into disrepair during its years in storage, and its battered appearance was unaltered for the film.

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The original derelict model, from a photo taken during its auction in 2005. The model was due to be destroyed after Alien, but was instead gifted to collector Bob Burns, who later loaned out the model to Cameron for Aliens. The ship was filmed in the States due to its fragile condition, and then returned. At some later point, an offer was apparently made by another collector to restore the model to its glory. Instead, it was taken and sold and finally auctioned, to Burns’ dismay. Its current whereabouts are unknown…

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The Pilot

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Suddenly, Melkonis lets out a grunt of shock. Their lights have illuminated something unspeakably grotesque: A huge alien skeleton, seated in the control chair. They approach the skeleton, their lights trained on it. It is a grotesque thing, bearing no resemblance to the human form.
Melkonis: “Holy Christ…”

And so we meet the mysterious, gargantuan extraterrestrial pilot of the derelict spacecraft, as dictated in Dan O’Bannon’s original Alien script. Having landed on a barren planetoid to investigate an apparent SOS signal, the crew of the commercial vehicle Snark find an alien ship amid the stormy dunes. “It is dead and abandoned,” reads the synopsis for O’Bannon’s script. Deep inside the crewmen discover the derelict’s dead tenant. The creature, long deceased, has mummified over perhaps decades or even centuries. “That thing’s been dead for years,” remarks Broussard, the character later known as Kane. “Maybe hundreds of years.” The pilot’s last act was to etch the shape of a pyramid onto his console before death took him. When the planetoid’s storms abate, the crewmen spot the pyramid on the horizon. Overcome by curiosity, they decide to investigate…

Though the pilot’s function in the film doesn’t quite change from the first script to the finished film (first warning flag of imminent danger) the creature’s in-universe biography was altered radically. Originally, the creature was to be a mere explorer that had stumbled upon the planetoid, and consequently the pyramid and its deadly spore. “In my script,” said O’Bannon, “[the pilot] was a space-going race that landed on the planet and had been wiped out by whatever was there. And now the Earthmen come and they endanger themselves in the same way.” The pilot therefore served as a warning to the audience that something about the pyramid and its contents were deadly. The race of indigenous aliens required host bodies to birth their young, and the reproductive process was undertaken in temples. Alien concept artist, and friend to O’Bannon, Ron Cobb explains:

“At some point a cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults in this unique race, leaving no one to tend and nurture the young. But in a dark lower chamber of the breeding temple a large number of eggs lie dormant, waiting to sense something warm. Years later, the Space Jockey’s race comes to this planetoid. The Jockeys are on a mission of exploration and archaeology and they are fascinated by this marvellous temple and unknown culture. One of them finds the egg chamber and gets face-hugged. He’s rescued, but no one knows what’s happened. They take him back to their ship and continue their exploration of the planet’s surface. When the chest-burster erupts from the Jockey it goes on a killing rampage until it is shot and killed. The Alien dies, but immediately decomposes and its acid eats through the hull of the Jockey ship, leaving them stranded on the planet. The Jockeys radio out a message that there is a dangerous parasite on the planet, that nothing can be done to save them in time, and that no one should attempt a rescue. Then the Jockeys slowly starve to death.”
~ Ron Cobb, Alien portfolio.

In the version of Alien that ended up on screen, the creature has become a victim of its own cargo – eggs that house parasitic alien spore. This alteration was born from a need to economise. First, the designers considered scrapping the pyramid in favour of a biomechanic egg silo, as the pyramid was, according to HR Giger, “too close, we found, to our own Egyptian culture and we thought it should be completely unearthly.” Eventually, it became clear that the film’s running time wouldn’t allow for repeat jaunts between the derelict craft, back to the crewmen’s ship, and then over to a pyramid. Additionally, the film’s budget did not allow for the creation of these separate elements, and the two -pyramid/silo and derelict- were fused into one location.

“It would have been wonderful in a three hour version,” said Ridley Scott. “Sometimes financial practicalities force you to do a certain amount of editorial work, and I’m glad we simplified it.” O’Bannon was less pleased: “In the original script the men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew are all dead. They return to their own ship to contemplate what may have killed the alien crew and then they discover a pyramid on the planet which appears to be indigenous and primitive. They enter the pyramid and there they find the eggs. They [Ridley and co] combined these two elements, they squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity … In the new version it’s just some sort of a surrealist mystery.”

When David Giler and Walter Hill began to rewrite O’Bannon’s script, the alien pilot was removed – along with every other extraterrestrial element. In their initial versions of the film, the titular Alien was a product of The Company’s bioweapons division, with the spore housed in an off-world facility known as The Cylinder. The extraterrestrial pilot was rewritten as a downed human pilot that the Nostromo crew find dead within his vehicle, a ship recognised by Dallas as a “L-52.”

“Suddenly, Lambert lets out a grunt of shock. Her light has illuminated a skeletal shape. Seated twenty feet beyond them in the control chair. A human being, terribly disfigured.”
~ Walter Hill & David Giler Alien draft, undated.

Director Ridley Scott claims to not know the origins of the term “Space Jockey” in relation to the gargantuan carcass found within the derelict. “Who is the big guy in the chair, who was fondly after Alien called the Space Jockey?” Scott said at a Prometheus press event in April 2012. “I don’t know how the hell he got that name.” The term has its earliest origins in this iteration of Giler and Hill’s rewrites, where Dallas refers to the dead human as:

Dallas: “One dead space jockey, no sign of the other crew members, the old L-52’s generally went up with a compliment of seven…”

The term is a spin on desk jockey, which is defined as “an office worker who sits at a desk, often as contrasted with someone who does more important or active work.” Since the filmmakers were trying to evoke the feeling that space travel was unglamourous, maybe even boring, the name makes sense in terms of human space pilots, and isn’t hard to fit the alien jockey either. The name also has a precedent in a 1947 Robert Heinlein story, titled, of course, Space Jockey, which is about “a rocket pilot who pilots a commercial passenger spacecraft”. The Shepperton crew, who were given copies of the Alien scripts to read prior to production, seem to have been responsible for making the name stick after its excision from one of the drafts.

When O’Bannon and executive producer/co-writer Ron Shusett heard of Giler and Hill’s rewrite, they appealed to Ridley Scott with copies of their original script. “We were disturbed by the content of the rewrite,” said O’Bannon. Upon seeing the original script, Scott said, “Oh yes, we have to go back to the first way, definitely.” The alien elements were restored – and yet the Space Jockey character was cut altogether, as the producers had decided to eliminate its scenes due to budget. Eventually, Ridley got his way, and the Jockey set was built, also doubling as the egg silo by the removal of the Jockey chair.

The design of the actual Space Jockey and his craft saw all of the film’s conceptual artists taking a turn at conceptualising it. Chris Foss, Ron Cobb, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud all submitted sketches and paintings, but the father of the Jockey was none of them, with HR Giger eventually coming up with the winning design.

Chris Foss’ sketch of the Jockey’s head. In O’Bannon’s script, the crewmen return to their ship with the decapitated skull. They note, with some disappointment, that mankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life has begun with disappointment. It may very well end with death.

“For the inside [of the derelict], Ron Cobb did the skeleton –what they later called the Space Jockey- and it was just perfect! Very small jawbone – no teeth to speak of. Of course, I expected it to look horrible when you first see it in the film; but if you looked at it a bit closer you’d discover that it didn’t have the large teeth or mandibles or any of the other things that are characteristic of a carnivore – and then maybe you’d begin to imagine it as some totally nonviolent herbivorous creature sailing around in space.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Cinefex, 1979.

Space Jockey design attributed to Moebius, printed in American Cinematographer and Mediascene magazines.

Space Jockey design attributed to Moebius, printed in American Cinematographer and Mediascene magazines.

None of these concepts were taken too seriously by Ridley Scott, who commissioned HR Giger to design the Space Jockey, using one of Giger’s Necronomicon paintings as a launching pad for the final creature.

“From the script I knew he was huge and had a hole in his chest, but that was all. Ridley suggested another one of my Necronom creatures as a guide. They don’t look much alike now, but it was a starting point; and the Space Jockey kind of grew up from there in bits and pieces. The creature we finally ended up building is biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat – he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.”
~ HR Giger, Cinefex, 1979.

“As for the chair in which he sits, I thought it had to be mechanical but not with normal arms and legs that could be moved with the feet or the hands. I liked very much the stone tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it seemed to have some interior-like computer. So I thought that the outside could be very normal-looking and the whole machinery could go inside.”
~ HR Giger, 1999.

“I wanted a fossil, almost,” said Scott regarding the Space Jockey’s integration with his technology, “one which you’d have a hard time deciding where he leaves off and the chair, on which he died, begins.” In the film, this fossil idea is voiced by Dallas, though the Jockey itself is ossified, not fossilised.

“When you see the so-called Space Jockey they [Fox] said, ‘That set costs half a million dollars and it’s only used one time – it’s economically unfeasible! It’s too damn expensive for that one scene!’
One day by accident I went on an errand to do something on the back of the lot [at Shepperton Studios], and the set was being built – the one they said they wouldn’t let us have. I thought it was miscommunication between the art department and the studio heads. I didn’t tell anybody until about a week before shooting.
I said, ‘Ridley, they built the Space Jockey set.’
He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
He said, ‘Because if we told you that, you would never stop asking for anything!’
But you needed that one scene – I call it the Cecil B. DeMille shot – to make it the big movie it was, not a little Roger Corman movie.”
~ Ron Shusett.

The Jockey itself is regarded as a marvel of the movie; a nigh unparalleled sight in the series. Giger himself was humble when describing it, saying: “I modeled it myself, in clay. It was then cast in polyester. I worked particularly on the head, and I painted it. To make the pieces of skin, I put on some latex and then scrubbed it off. Then painted some more. If we had more days, we could have made it better — but I think for the film it’s okay.”

The sad fate of the Jockey prop, as reported in Starlog, 1979.

The sad fate of the Jockey prop, as reported in Starlog, 1979.

The Jockey did not return in any of the sequels (thought the derelict appeared in the Special Edition of Aliens), a fact that Scott lamented: “They missed it!” James Cameron explained that the Space Jockey’s story was something only thinly sketched in Alien, and best left to the original director: “Presumably,” he said, “the derelict pilot (space jockey, big dental patient, etc.) became infected en route to somewhere and set down on the barren planetoid to isolate the dangerous creatures, setting up the warning beacon as his last act. What happened to the creature that emerged from him? Ask Ridley.”

Cameron also mused on the nature of the Jockey: “I could provide plausible answers for [the Space Jockey], but they’re no more valid than anyone else’s. Clearly, the dental patient was a sole crew member on a one-man ship. Perhaps his homeworld did know of his demise, but felt it was pointless to rescue a doomed person. Perhaps he was a volunteer or a draftee on the hazardous mission of bio-isolating these organisms. Perhaps he was a military pilot, delivering the alien eggs as a bio-weapon in some ancient interstellar war humans know nothing of, and got infected inadvertently.” This latter view is an idea that Ridley himself has encouraged throughout the decades, and explored further in Prometheus.

“I always wanted to go back and make an Alien 5 or 6,” Ridley said in the 1999 Alien DVD commentary, “where we find out where they came from and go there and answer the question, who are they? Mars is too close, so they can’t be gods of war, but the theory in my head was, this was an aircraft carrier, a battlewagon of a civilisation, and the eggs were a cargo which were essentially weapons. So right, like a large form of bacteriological/biomechanoid warfare.”

“This Space Jockey I’ve always thought was the driver of the craft,” Scott explained further. “[He is] a perfect example of Giger’s mind, which is ‘where does biology end and technology begin?’ because [Giger] seems to have grafted the creature into what was essentially a pilot’s seat. But clearly from here, this is where the [warning] transmission would emanate from, probably in an automatic transmission… maybe one of the eggs had been disturbed and a creature had got out, had attacked the rest of the crew, don’t ask me where they got to, but he’s pretty gruesome…”

A shaft of light filters through the ship’s oculus, illuminating the long-dead pilot within.
Image copyright, HR Giger.

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